Center City: People Without Government-Issued IDs Pay a Steep Price to Own Their Identity

Many people experiencing homelessness lack the government-issued identification needed to apply for a job. They can obtain it, but at a price.

Adam Bruckner, director of Philly Restart, distributes checks to help people experiencing homelessness pay for a state ID or birth certificate on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, Pa.

Carter lost his ID. Andrea’s expired. Kathleen never applied for one in the first place. 

Without government-issued identification, the three Philadelphians cannot obtain a job, Social Security, or public housing. Consequently, they lack at least one of two critical assets to combat poverty: a steady income or a stable place to live.

“I’m struggling right now,” said Andrea Anderson, a single mother of two who needs an ID to secure public housing. “I’m trying to take care of my two kids — I have a four-year-old — and I’m on a fixed income, so it’s really hard.”

“You can’t do a lot of things without ID,” said Kathleen Walsh, who needs an ID to apply for Social Security benefits, food stamps, and a free phone. “It’s becoming a problem.”

Walsh cannot work due to her mental health and needs a Social Security check to support herself. 

“You need your ID to do anything,” said Carter, who requested his last name be withheld from this story. Carter’s ID was stolen along with his wallet at a gas station this October. He is currently experiencing homelessness and sleeping at Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, the largest shelter in Philadelphia, while seeking assistance from outside organizations during the day.

“I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” Carter said.

The ID application itself is infused with countless roadblocks, including high prices and Catch-22 requirements not dissimilar to the requirements on a job application — like needing a state ID to apply for a birth certificate and needing a birth certificate to apply for a state ID.

Once the person obtains preliminary materials, they must pay an application fee. A new or replacement P.A. ID costs $30.50 and a P.A. birth certificate costs $20. Totaling to $50.50 for both IDs, this price could equate to a week’s worth of groceries for someone on a budget.

The price increases with the implementation of REAL ID to $60 for first-time purchasers. Residents are not required to have one but will need the REAL ID or a passport in order to board a flight or enter a federal building starting October 2020. 

Thus, in a country where affording a home is a luxury — according to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, “a family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States” — securing the rights to one’s own identity can be a privilege of the affluent, too.

“It becomes a real fight,” said Elizabeth Hefner, director of advancement at Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission. “Without that identification, they almost lose personhood. They lose their ability to prove themselves to be who they know themselves to be.”

The price of personhood

On a recent Monday, Anderson, Carter, and Walsh waited in a line outside the Parkway Central Library to receive financial assistance toward applying for a P.A. ID. 

Andrea Anderson eats a meal provided by Restart as she seeks assistance in obtaining an ID.

The line was monitored by Adam Bruckner, founder of Philly Restart, who can be found on the Parkway once a week, administering checks of $15 or $13.50 to supplement the price of a birth certificate or P.A. ID, respectively, to people in need. Depending on certain factors, like if a person is a veteran or is waiting in line with a child, Bruckner will give them $27.50 toward an ID.

Philly Restart is now a nonprofit, under the mother organization Helping Hand Rescue Mission, and funded by donations.

The organization used to cover the full price of both IDs, but capped the numbers in 2014, after the P.A. ID price increased from $13.50 to $27.50 and birth certificate price increased from $10 to $20. With so many people to serve, a few-dollar increase meant thousands of extra expenses for the organization each year, Bruckner said.

To benefit from the services, a person must obtain a letter from a shelter or recovery system that states the individual is experiencing homelessness or seeking recovery services. Then they meet Brucker outside the Philadelphia Free Library at 4 p.m., any Monday of the year. 

“As long as it’s Monday, he will be here,” said Nicole Rodgers, a RE-LINK care action specialist with Action Wellness, who meets with Bruckner on Mondays on behalf of her clients. “Even in the pouring down rain.”

Nicole Rodgers visits Philly Restart’s ID line by the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Oct. 7, 2019, in Philadelphia, Pa. Rodgers works as a RE-LINK Care Action Specialist with Action Wellness, serving clients between 18- and 26-years-old who are coming out of incarceration.

RE-LINK serves clients between 18 and 26 years old who are coming out of incarceration and who need IDs “really bad,” Rodgers said. 

Bruckner’s service frees up money for Rodgers organization to provide other accommodations like clothing and transportation for her clients, she added.

Clients are eligible for $27.50 from Philly Restart and RE-LINK funds the extra $3 to make up the difference. 

Bruckner refers people without proper letters from a shelter or recovery system to other organizations in the city. On a recent Monday, he recommended a woman visit Face to Face, a nonprofit human services organization in Germantown. 

Walsh, who left the line before speaking to Bruckner because she forgot her paperwork, made plans to seek ID services at Broad Street Ministry, a faith-based meal and service provider, during the week.

Philly Restart’s “accidental” start

Adam Bruckner, director of Philly Restart, presigns checks to be used by people experiencing homelessness to purchase a state ID or birth certificate on Oct. 7, 2019, at Helping Hand Mission.

Adam Bruckner founded Philly Restart, “accidentally,” in 2002, he said. 

A former soccer player, he hitchhiked to different cities to try out for different professional teams in the early 2000s. People experiencing homelessness often joined him on these rides and Bruckner grew curious about the challenges they faced. He asked other passengers blunt questions like, “Why don’t you just get a job?” during the commute, Bruckner said.

The common answer: the person lacked identification.

Bruckner stopped hitchhiking around 2001 when he earned a spot on the Philadelphia Kixx and settled in Philadelphia. His curiosity about roadblocks to obtaining identification continued and, after small-talk conversations turned into friendship, Bruckner decided to help a man named Calvin obtain a P.A. ID. 

“That was how I realized how tough the process was,” Bruckner said. “You need a birth certificate to get a state ID card. You need an ID card to get a birth certificate. You need an ID to get a Social Security card. You need a Social Security card and get an ID. We went and sat in these offices. And you can clearly see why so many people gave up or weren’t able to do it.”

The two spent multiple days visiting various office buildings with long wait-times and not-so-nice employees until Calvin finally secured the card.

ID in hand, Calvin started crying, Bruckner said. 

“This is a tough, North Philly dude,” Bruckner added. “It was this real identity thing, having something with your name on it, that he hadn’t had in so long.” 

Word spread, and soon others asked Bruckner for help getting an ID. What started as a two-person quest for Bruckner and Calvin grew to a nonprofit which has served between 4,000 and 5,000 people each year.

Need an ID to prove yourself? Prove it.

Kathleen Walsh eats a free meal provided by Philly Restart on Oct. 7, 2019, at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Walsh needs a state ID.

The Homeless Advocacy Project provides pro bono legal services for people experiencing homelessness, including helping people apply for birth certificates if they do not have a state ID. It offers these services through legal clinics at places like Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission and other community centers, shelters, churches, and missions throughout Philadelphia.

The HAP lawyers can beat the system through attorney protocol, which is the ability for an attorney to request a birth certificate on their client’s behalf and have the application approved even if their client does not have a state ID. 

“The best way to start is for us to get birth records for our clients,” said Michele Levy, a managing attorney at HAP. “Then they can move to the next step of getting a state ID.”

Attorney protocol is the only way (unless a person has a guardian or family member with proper identification who can apply for a birth certificate on someone’s behalf) that a person without a state ID can apply for a birth certificate.

Approximately 11% — or 21 million — of Americans lack government-issued identification, according to a 2006 survey from the Brennan Center for Justice. Among adults living in households that earn annual incomes of less than $25,000, the rate is 12%, according to a 2015 report by Project Vote

If the client needs a birth certificate from a state or territory that does not have attorney protocol, like Puerto Rico, the process is trickier. In such cases, they may need to find an attorney who is registered in that jurisdiction to take the case to court. 

HAP will send for and pay for the person’s birth certificate even if they were born outside of P.A. HAP’s services do not cover the state ID application because after a birth certificate is secured, an attorney protocol is no longer necessary.

Rev. Jeremy Montgomery, the president of Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, compares the tail-chasing process of applying for an ID to a Ping-Pong game.

“The valuable work [of] the HAP project is to be able to end that Ping-Pong,” Montgomery said. “To be able to, as attorneys, get to the right offices, get to the right of officials and bureaucrats or relationships or connections to be able to end that Ping-Pong game.”

Taking the next steps

Duwood Gee, a recipient of a $27.50 check for his P.A. ID, hoped to panhandle the rest of the money by City Hall that evening. 

Duwood Gee leaves Philly Restart’s ID line and walks toward City Hall where he will try to panhandle the extra money he needs to purchase a Pennsylvania Identification Card on Oct. 7, 2019. Gee is experiencing homelessness, having recently returned to society from a 7-year prison sentence. He needs an ID to apply for social security and set up a bank account.

Gee returned to Philadelphia in August after a seven-year incarceration for stronghold robbery. Because he is disabled, he needs an ID to apply for Social Security and receive any income. 

“You need finances for everything,” Gee said. “Without finances, you can’t purchase anything. How about that? But as soon as I get this Social Security check, it looks like I’ma get a room. It’s about time.”

“I’m trying to move and [there’s] so much going on,” Anderson, also unsure of her next steps, said. 

Anderson applied for public housing with the Philadelphia Housing Authority more than a decade ago, in 2008, and reached the top of the waitlist this month.

More than 50% of people applying for housing or shelters in the United States are denied because they lack identification, according to a 2004 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty

When she goes for her PHA screening, Anderson knows if she does not bring identification, she will be turned away. 

“And I came too far for that,” Anderson said.

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1 Comment

  1. Wait, what? My passport is going to expire in December and they’re asking $110 to renew it. My driver’s license is going to expire next year and they’re asking $30 to renew. For a birth cert, it’s $47. Oh, and I can’t get a passport photo for less than $13. Can I get a check to pay for any of these? I am not homeless. I have a job. I also have five, countem, five grandkids that I pay tuition and other expenses for. Can I get a check from these non-profits? It’s ridiculous what they charge for these forms of ID!

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